A Critical Primer

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Aaron W. Hughes
Concepts in the Study of Religion
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , October
     128 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Aaron Hughes is as prolific an author as he is wide-ranging a scholar. I had only recently finished his remarkable biography of Jacob Neusner (Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast, NYU Press, 2016) when I discovered this slim volume in the Concepts in the Study of Religion series, published by Equinox in association with the North American Association for the Study of Religion. Meanwhile, in the same narrow window, Hughes also had published his Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity (Equinox, 2015); Jacob Neusner on Religion: The Example of Judaism (Routledge, 2016); and Shared Identities: Medieval and Modern Imaginings of Judeo-Islam (OUP, 2017). One suddenly feels rather lazy.

Fittingly for a primer, Comparison: A Critical Primer comprises just 113 pages of main text, organized into an introduction plus five chapters of 20-odd pages each. Hughes begins (in the preface and introduction) by citing Max Müller’s bon mot “He who knows one [religion] knows none” and proposing his own, anti-phenomenological alternative: “She who knows one religion really well, knows that she cannot fall under phenomenology’s spell” (vii). Throughout the book, Hughes returns again and again to this theme: sogenannte comparison that purports to uncover a universal Sacred is no comparison at all. Chapter 1, “To What Can I Compare Thee?” introduces the comparative study of religion and shows how it has often been used either for apologetic claims to uniqueness or for ecumenical claims to sameness. (The latter misuse, however, looms larger than the former in Hughes’s field of vision.) Chapter 2, “History,” considers various proposals for the origin of the comparative study of religion, whether in late antique heresiology, or medieval Islamic jurisprudence, or nineteenth-century European colonialism, or otherwise. Chapter 3, “Possibilities,” hazards some constructive proposals to rectify past abuses in the field. Hughes’s key claim is that viable comparisons must be local rather than global, specific rather than general, specialist rather than dilettante. Chapter 4, “Contexts,” details Hughes’s method for doing comparison in context, illustrating from his own expertise with a discussion of the fuzzy boundary between Jews and Muslims in seventh- and eighth-century CE Persia. Chapter 5, “Future,” prognosticates, imagining several possible futures for the discipline: one in which phenomenological comparison carries on unhindered, another in which the study of religion balkanizes entirely into so many area studies, and still another in which the cognitive science of religion displaces humanistic enquiry. By way of avoiding all of these possible futures, Hughes exhorts his readers to sensitivity to the historical record, linguistic dexterity, and theoretical sophistication. The back matter of the book includes a further reading list subdivided into sections on general works, classic phenomenological approaches, comparison and ideology, specific comparisons, and cognitive science of religion; a bibliography of works cited; and a combined index of subjects and modern authors.

Comparison: A Critical Primer is a very fine wee book (excepting, frustratingly, its rather higher-than-average number of typos), a demonstration of the principle of quality, not quantity. I know of no other book that does the same job as well. Jonathan Z. Smith’s classic Drudgery Divine is in the same neighborhood, but it is a collection of lectures, not a primer, written for scholars, not students, and it focuses more on a particular exemplum than on the meta-issues. Hughes’s book really is a proper primer on comparison. (It would also serve well as a vade mecum for students reading Otto, Eliade, et al. for the first time.) I would—indeed, I expect that I probably will—use Hughes’s Comparison as a text for upper-level undergrad or graduate courses on theory and method or (in the spirit of Hughes’s exhortation) on particular regions or traditions. Inasmuch as Hughes is especially preoccupied with criticizing phenomenology, I—as one who works on ancient Judaism and Christianity—would probably have to supplement with J. Z. Smith’s criticisms of claims to religious uniqueness. But no single book can hit all targets, and this book hits its chosen targets very skilfully indeed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew V. Novenson is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes is the Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. His research and publications focus on both Jewish philosophy and Islamic Studies. He has authored numerous books, including Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic Discipline (Equinox, 2007); Theorizing Islam: Disciplinary Deconstruction and Reconstruction (Equinox, 2012); Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam (Columbia, 2012); and Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford, 2012). He currently serves as the editor of the journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.



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